Update July 2, 2009

Court Records Research

In an earlier post, we explained the concept of “provenance,” and how we use it here at Montpelier. Tracking down an object’s provenance often requires documentary research. In this post, we would like to expand on a type of research we touched on in our last post – documentary research with court records, and how it is helping us better understand the Madisons and their lives at Montpelier.

Court records provide us with a unique approach to comprehending the Madison family through legal transactions. We utilize probate records such as wills, inventories and accounts of estate sales for many Madison family members to create a better understanding of what each person inherited, owned, bought and sold. We then build on this knowledge by examining the records of lawsuits for Orange County, Virginia which are housed at several repositories across the state, including the Orange County Courthouse, the Library of Virginia, and the State Record Center.

These records are spread across several courts, for example, courts for different jurisdictions, such as county and district. Making this a bit more difficult are changes to the structure of the court system itself as the 19th century progressed. Since we want to collect all information possible for James and Dolley Madison, his parents, her son John Payne Todd, and other close family members, we are systematically going through the records of each court in chronological order. It is a slow process, but more thorough than relying just on indexes or making random searches on years of suspected activity. While we are specifically interested in mentions of furniture and interior decoration in our current research, we record all cases for future reference. We have uncovered many court cases that have helped shed light on the history of the Madisons, their changing financial status, the individuals with whom they did business, their slaves, and so much more.

One interesting case involved Dolley Madison and a merchant named Thomas Vial. He brought suit against her for nonpayment of accounts, submitting as evidence a list of all the items she had purchased from him in 1842 and 1843. This list provides us with information on what types of beverages and food she purchased. It also raises more questions for us: Did Dolley buy items from Mr. Vial in other years? If so, were her purchases for entertainment or for the everyday management of the household? Do any records of Thomas Vial’s business survive? In this manner, court documents can provide answers as well as questions that will hopefully lead to further discoveries.

 Orange County Courthouse

The Fourth of July

Although July 4 was not designated as a federal holiday for almost a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence was signed and drafted, it was considered by some a day of celebration from the very first anniversary. The way people chose to celebrate varied from place to place, some holding big parties and others holding prayer meetings.

Two hundred years ago, on July 4, 1809, citizens of the town of Pittsfield, Vermont, chose to celebrate the anniversary of American Independence by writing a letter to their President, James Madison. That letter now belongs to the Library of Congress, and you can see and read it for yourself.

The language of the letter is more formal, and certainly more flowery, than most people today would use, even when writing to the President. The underlying message, on the other hand, still applies today. While these citizens of Pittsfield voted for James Madison, and wanted him to succeed, they closed their letter by celebrating the “Sovreign Lord” of the United States: the People.

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3 Responses to Update July 2, 2009

  1. Sarah Everett says:

    On question of provenance and Montpelier using court records to date back things that either were purchased by or bought from the Madisons and their relatives, how do the court systems still retain such priceless and aged documents? How long do you predict it will take to go through all of the county and district court records which retain information on the Madisons?
    I most fervently support all these researches and am also grateful for your posting of the July 4th 1809 letter:)
    God Bless and Most Sincerely, I am Yr. Obt. Srvt.
    Sarah Everett

    • Sarah, In response to your question, the records that we use are public records, which the county is required to retain and make accessible to the public. We are very fortunate that our local county’s records are so comprehensive and largely intact going back to the founding of the county in 1734 . In many instances, especially in towns affected by the Civil War, court houses were burned and all early records were lost. As we mentioned in the update, local court records are an amazing resource for researchers, genealogists, and scholars. Because there are so many records, and this is not our only research focus, it is very hard to say how long it will take.

  2. Donald Lay says:

    I am always amazed at the effort and indepth research y’all do to find the correct answers. Thanks to all and keep up the good work.

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